Throughout my entire life – education, relationships, work – I’ve always given everything my all, throwing myself into situations feet-first, and often blind to how deep the hole truly is. Yes, it’s instinctive and it is intrinsic to my nature to help those who need it without a second glance in the mirror to ask how it really makes me feel.
Trawling back through memories the other day, I found an old report card from my first year in formal education.
Aged 5: “is always keen to help others”. Cute, right?
Aged 11: parents’ evenings would be full of glowing praise and I’d come out in a shower of golden applause for my enthusiasm, responsibility, and “support for others”. That’s just how polite girls are at school, though…
Aged 17: I won the Headteacher’s Award for astounding commitment against adversity and dedication to others. It was a huge honour (truly, I mean that) and it had my mum ready to spontaneously combust with pride. It spurred my efforts to make others proud, to make them smile, and to do what I could.
But, that little girl, from those days on the carpet learning my first phonics, and all the way through, was sowing the seeds to some pretty stubborn roots that her much older self would spend years trying to loosen up.
Helping others is fantastic for society, refreshing to her elders, commendable, even – in some cases. So how do we draw the line between helping others and hurting ourselves? It can be difficult to acknowledge that your great intentions aren’t so great at all. I began to notice that my helpfulness was becoming a personal rut when I constantly found myself catching up with essentials that only impacted me. Things like reading fictional books I would have once devoured without a second thought, or spending time in the bath without my phone ‘on call’ just in case that email came through whilst I was all soaped up.
But here’s the thing: allowing time for ourselves isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity of our wider well-being, and overall sustainability to carry on being healthy enough to continue helping others too.
Here are some top tips and constructive questions I’ve found to be valuable when reflecting on my own capacity and when it’s okay to say “no”.
If I’ve been asked to help someone with something, is there someone else I could ask to support with this too/instead? Sometimes people will come to you for favours as a ‘first port of call’ but this doesn’t mean you should always be the one to take it on. Is there anyone else that could support?
It’s okay to give yourself time. There’s no need to reply to a request or offer your services immediately. Take time to weigh up the options and consider thoughtfully whether it’s something you can truly take on and want to be involved with.
Equally, it’s okay to say no! Your reply does not have to be a straightforward and total rejection of a situation but can be worded in a way that offers support at a time/place that is more convenient and supportive of you. This might look something like “I’m sorry, I’ve got a lot on at the moment but would be happy to help you next time” or “I can’t do this right now but I can help to find someone who might be able to support you, instead”. The yes/no binary doesn’t have to be as blunt and harsh as you might fear it to be. I used to think no meant I was always being mean or unfriendly so I would steer entirely away from it. But, actually, sometimes saying no means finding someone more qualified for a job or someone who is able to put in more time and energy for something than you currently have – which is better for everyone!
The guilt gets easier. When you first start making these decisions against the usual tide of agreeing to everything in an instant, it can feel like you’ve really let someone down. The guilt can be quite uncomfortable to navigate at the start but keep reminding yourself that it’s perfectly okay – healthy and safe, even – to put these boundaries in place and raise realistic expectations in your relationships. It’s okay to prioritise you!
It’s important to stay positive. For someone who has constantly said yes, the first few times saying no can conjure a warmth of guilt that feels like carrying around a rugged, heavy, wet dog. It feels clunky and awkward. It’s a grim, gross, lukewarm sensation and really difficult to keep a grip on sometimes too. It does get easier as those boundaries become more familiar to you, and those around you. Respect is key, for you of others, from them of you, and – most importantly – you of yourself.
You are so very worth it.